ANTIQUES, December 1939, Pages 286
By LAWRENCE B. ROMAINE
Behold the child, by Nature's kindly law.
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a
Some livelier plaything gives his
A little louder, but as empty quite:
Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his
And beads and prayer-books are the
toys of age.
Pleased with this bauble still, as
Till tired he sleeps, and life's poor
play is o'er.
From Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope
short but important footnote remains to be added to the fascinating, oft-told
story of the toy. We know of the ingenious homemade toys provided for colonial
youngsters, and we may look to the New England Courant, the Boston Newsletter,
and the Pennsylvania Chronicle for news of toys imported between 1725 and the
time of the Revolution. But information about the first toy factories in the
United States seems lacking. What of the first tin, iron, and mechanical toys
made in American factories. Who were the pioneers in this field?
The encyclopedia states that there were no toy factories a hundred years ago:
further, that there were none in the United States until 1875. A perusal of
hundreds of almanacs, city directories, manufacturers' catalogs, circulars, and
retail-store catalogues of the 1860's reveals but two firms listed as "toy
manufacturers." These, recorded in a Guide to New York City, published by
T. Ellwood Zell (1868), are: The American Toy Company, 48 John Street,
Manufacturers of tin, iron and mechanical toys; and Hull & Stafford,
Clinton, Connecticut. Tin toys. (Listed under R. Foulds, 39 John Street, New
York City. Depot for Hull & Stafford.) Perhaps there are others to prove the
Several other firms are listed as agents for toys, imported from unlisted
sources. Some of these might be traced, but only through discovery of the
manufacturers' catalogs — such a happy accident as brought to light the
catalogue of Hull & Stafford bearing the name of the agent, R. Foulds, from
which the accompanying illustrations were taken. There is no way of proving, for
example, whether "the finest assortment of wax dolls in the city,"
advertised by S. J. Parsells, was imported from France or from a New England
state. Consequently, although other toy manufacturers may have been active in
addition to the two named, it seems safe to assume that there were very few
during the years from 1850 to 1870. However, it is impossible to cover the
During the following three decades there seem to have been a great many more
catalogs offering toys, though that circumstance does not necessarily indicate a
great increase in their manufacture. Many of these catalogues were premium lists
sent to the distributors. The suggestion that Europe still supplied the American
markets and that the American manufactures made toys as a by-product to
stimulate sales of other merchandise is substantiated by the quality of premium
lists of this period now to be found. I refer to Spellman's Fancy Goods Graphic
and the Budget of Novelties, published in the 1880's, which offer for a dollar
everything from false moustaches to a complete steam engine. Other manufacturers
issued catalogues of penny banks and tricks, fashioned as a by-product in
factories where larger castings for the parlor stove and stable were fashioned.
Just where all the toys offered as premiums came from, it is impossible to say.
As the premium idea took hold, no doubt other makers followed in the steps of
Hull & Stafford.
That toys were usually educational and that their shapes and devices followed
the inventions of the day is shown by the cuts from Hull & Stafford's
Photographic Catalogue, here reproduced. The snip-tin houses, churches, and sap
buckets, the latest in dump carts, cask carts, phaetons, buggies, coaches, and
circus wagons (with circus ladies), steam engines with wood-burning and
coal-burning smokestacks and complete trains of cars of the latest Union Pacific
models, fire engines with complete equipment, four-post beds with testers, and
magnificent hearses for the end of the list, stand ready to amuse and instruct.
The wheels and horses are in some cases of cast iron. These were probably made
in a near-by foundry expressly for Hull & Stafford and offer additional
concrete evidence to support the by-product theory.
Speaking from the collector's point of view, it is not strange that so few of
these old toys are now available. When one considers the use and abuse to which
they must have been subjected, even in the course of one generation, it is a
wonder that any veterans have survived to tell the tale. To find one of the old
railroad trains of snipped tin complete and intact with any trace of the old
stencil is almost like finding a first edition of Tom Sawyer in immaculate
condition. Fortunately for us, there are some which have reposed in attic
trunks, safe from the hands of small boys and girls, who are notoriously expert
at wrecking playthings.
Fortunately, too, for the modern collector, the catalogues and advertising
matter were handled by grown-ups who sold the toys, else even the few examples
still extant might have been destroyed. The iron castings, to be sure, were in
some instances stamped with the patent and the maker's mark, which assist in
present-day identification, and some of the tin toys still bear a stencil of the
maker's name. However, such examples are rarities. The collector must rely upon
catalogues, flyers, advertising matters, directories, guidebooks, and such
sources to learn of the date and origin of his choice pieces.
There must be other toy catalogues proving the existence of American toy
factories between 1850 and 1870, to supplement this incomplete record. Yet the
American output must have been relatively small. The European manufacturer,
working under more economical conditions, seems for the most part to have
supplied the American market until the World War, when European toy-makers were
busy with other and more deadly "toys" and the United States became
the largest producer and consumer of children's toys in the world.
One point deserves to be stressed. Even the patent laws have not changed the
general rule that the product of one man's inventiveness became the property of
his contemporaries. Just as European coaches were copied by the carriage-makers
of New Haven, the best American toys were patterned after European models.
Without belittling the originality of our own people, it is safe to say that in
the nineteenth century — and earlier, too — almost all fashions, whether in
architecture, tableware, or hairdressing, originated in Europe. Consequently one
can judge the origin of a specific toy only if it bears the maker's name or if
it can be identified in a catalogue — and even then, as Mr. Kipling said,
"one is like to be wrong."